We like it when it’s personal

We cope much better, in a way, when we can identify a villain and deal with them, than we do when a problem has many contributors, particularly if we ourselves are part of the problem.

The furore over Fred Goodwin’s knighthood which has led to him being ‘stripped’ of his ‘Sir’ title is a case in point. I come to bury Sir Fred’s knighthood not to praise it but the evil that men do throughout their lives lives on whether or not they are called ‘Sir’. It seems odd to me that he was once regarded, by committees of our society, as being worthy of an ‘honour’ for services to banking but that when he continued doing his banking job he somehow slipped off the perch on which ‘we’ had put him.  Was the Sir Fred before the banking crisis a much better person than the Mr Fred after the banking crisis?

If you are a person who cares about ‘honours’, and I’m guessing that maybe Mr Fred is, then you must feel as though you have won the lottery of life if you get a ‘Sir’ but it is a gift from a grateful nation and so there must be a question about ‘our’ judgement if we give someone an honour and then deem it appropriate to take it back.  We backed the wrong horse, we look foolish, don’t blame the horse, however awful it was, for our misguided selection.

I don’t feel sorry for, or any affection for, Fred Goodwin, but I assume that the pre-knighthood Fred Goodwin was a very similar person to the post-knighthood Fred Goodwin.

And then there is that Stephen Hester chap at RBS.  He was hounded into giving his bonus back.  Again, it’s difficult to feel very sorry for him, and I don’t, although, actually, maybe I do, just a little. He didn’t get RBS into a mess, he is trying to get it out of a mess.  And although I can’t tell whether he is doing that well or not, everyone seems to say that he is doing a good job.  So why does he have to give up his bonus?

Hester can’t have held a gun to the head of the RBS board to dictate his terms and conditions of employment, he was offered them.  And ‘we’ own more than 80% of that company so surely, again, ‘we’ were at fault not Mr (soon to be Sir?) Hester.

Regular readers of this blog may have picked up the impression that I am not the natural ally of very rich bankers so these two gentleman are not likely ever to become my best mates but it seems to me that a bonus of over £1m and the three letters ‘Sir’ are pretty small beer in the banking system as a whole and how it ought to be reformed.

This week, ‘we’ have made the banking system a personal issue about two men.  We have shown our envy and vindictiveness, which is very human of us, but have we reformed the system? Is a banking system without Stephen Hester getting a£1m bonus a much better one than one where he does? And is a banking system with Mr Fred a former participant a better one than one with Sir Fred in that position?  It’s the system that needs changing.

And, to bring me finally to the type of subject you expect me to write about, it’s almost always the system that needs changing.

When a gamekeeper is convicted of a wildlife offence it is too easy to demonise that single person – and maybe they should indeed be despised depending on the circumstances – but their personal actions are set in the context of their employers’ wishes and the wider context of how Society as a whole regards wildlife.  The system needs changing and many involved in the system need to be motivated to change it rather than us regarding the matter as closed when one miscreant gets his just rewards.

And if farmers went out and shot skylarks in their fields then we would find it easy to do something about the millions that have been lost from our lives over the years.  But because it is the system of agriculture that drives wildlife from our fields, and we are all part of that system because the subsidies are given by governments that we elect and the produce is bought through supermarkets that we patronise, then it is much more difficult to save the skylark and other wildlife. A single rich farmer shooting 20 skylarks would be a publicity gift, and no doubt that farmer would be pilloried publicly, but because that isn’t how we have lost millions of skylarks it is much more difficult to shift the system.  We are all arms-length skylark killers so we don’t solve the problem.

And the solution to all this is to act to change the system.  Be radical and be active.  You don’t have to man the barricades or throw a petrol bomb but why not become more politically active and be an active consumer? Changing the system takes a lot of people and probably a lot of time.  We need banking systems, farming systems, political systems, energy systems, fisheries systems and education systems that make the world a fairer and more ecologically sustainable place to live.  For that I would happily let Mr Fred stay Sir Fred and rich Mr Hester stay even richer.


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9 Replies to “We like it when it’s personal”

  1. It's far to easy nowadays to pay a few quid to a representative society or organisation and sit back knowing you have done your bit !
    Few of us really speak out and our words are too easily quashed !

  2. Mark you have hit the nail on the head. Environmental problems need to be made personal - the intangible need to be made tangible. Unless this is done then only people in the margins will care and take action. There is an issue with conservationists generally coming from a science background. To change behaviour and make it personal the sector needs to engage economists, psychologists and marketeers. Science only leads you to the problem not the solution.

  3. Must be something in the air! Wrote a piece about why we should be taking action in my blog a couple of days ago - 'Passive/Tense'. We have so much information these days, which allows us to feel we're contributing without actually doing anything. People don't experience the real world, make anything, mend anything or otherwise get directly involved with life any more. If there isn't already a movement let's start one!

  4. It's a shame the RSPB itself does not promote these essential changes much more vocally, identify them as fundamental to a sustainable future, and spread the message to their members, the wider public and our politicans.

    But isn't that how a lot of these organisations prosper? By knowing just how far it's acceptable for them to push the 'establishment'? No one wants to frighten the horses, do they?

  5. We are all arms-length skylark killers (my new insult of the day - I currently tell my husband that he kills a shrew evey time he uses too much water), but some are clearly much more so than others. Is it better to identify and attack the ones with hundreds of beaks strung around their necks, or attack all of those with just one or two trophy beaks? It doesn't make you popular, or make friends telling people about their one beak habitats - we all need guidance please!

  6. Wow a real thought provoking blog there Mark,think you have said it all and made a lot of important points all in moderation,no putting the blame on one individual or group.It is all too easy to tar one person or group responsible for various consequences.However find this hounding of Stephen Hester repulsive and primarily led by Ed Milliband who must have been part of Government who appointed him and set up the pay package more or less and we have to be fair and pay him the going rate for bankers the world over even if we think that amount is too much.
    Like always happens politicians E M included like to make political points and if that is at some ones expense they do not care one bit
    Have MPs already forgotten their own grab from the general public purse.
    MPs who live in glass houses should not throw stones especially when they swap house to grab more money.They should set a example.

  7. I am glad that I am not the only one who feels slightly uncomfortable with the amount of attention being given to these individuals. Don't get me wrong, I see no reason to reward bankers with honours and obscene bonuses, but to seek to lay the blame for our current economic demise at the doors of a few individuals surely cannot be right. We as a society need to consider the real reasons underlying our current problems. Ultimately we were all happy to ride the tide of a growing, albeit unsustainable, economy. We were all happy to take out loans and mortgages, without proper regard for affordability. Politicians in particular were happy to bask in the success of a booming economy. We now need to reappraise what we want as a society, what is important to us and what we value most. Our natural environment is clearly an important part of this. What I fear is that we are simply trying to paper over the cracks, blame a few individuals and then carry on as before.


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